Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell (which I have not read, but certainly will), is a refreshing, suspenseful, simple human story set in a drug-infested community in the rural Ozarks. It's a little old-fashioned, completely absorbing, patiently and carefully observed.
The film tells the story of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, excellent), a teenager raising her two younger siblings and taking care of her catatonic mother, because their father is on the run from the law over several drug-related incidents.
This is sad, with rewards, and more and more overwhelming for Ree. But when she learns from the police and an angling bail bondsman that the house where she lives with her family, and the voluminous woods they own nearby, have been put up for her father's bail in his latest court case--and it doesn't look like he's going to show--she starts beating the bushes trying to find out how to locate his sorry self.
She looks for help from her friends, relatives, some who might be friends and relatives, and anybody who might have a clue or any assistance for her. Some try to help. Some say no. Some seem to want to help, but to be held back by decisions made with the best interests of local widespread drug-trafficking foremost.
The best advice, given to Ree consistently and by everybody, is to shut up and stop making trouble. There's a familial, criminal, incestuous omerta which everybody respects and which is enforced, ultimately in some pretty terrifying ways. But what choice does she have? Once she sets her course, we know her sheer willpower and desperation are going to lead somewhere. The suspense builds well.
The acting is all first-rate. Nobody overplays. In general, everybody underplays, and this is mostly effective, though it gets problematic in a few instances. Jennifer Lawrence mostly carries the film on her own, with the strongest support coming from John Hawkes as the violent, dangerous and addled Uncle Teardrop in a star-making role, and Dale Dickey as Merab, wife and/or confidante of the Ozark meth kingpin Thump Milton. Dickey rides herd over a difficult and maybe a bit too stereotypical part. These two, especially, are confident and complicated performances to offset Ree's lonely journey.
There are a few times when violence portrayed either casually, devastatingly or matter-of-factly, feels somewhat incorrectly done. I'm not complaining about the level of violence especially, or any specific instance of it which is over-the-top. Instead, the film is just slightly unbalanced by certain notes which should be hit, but are not, quite. In particular, a spectacularly gruesome sequence near the end relies a lot on the actors' poker faces to put it across. It might have been more effective in total darkness, with only voices and noises.
The very ending has a certain flavor of Elmore Leonard, and might be a bit too easy, but it's relatively well sold and pretty satisfying. Winter's Bone also reminded me of the Donna Tartt novel The Little Friend; it has similar flaws in the resolution. If the incident I wish had been left in the dark had been, or if it had been handled just slightly differently, more credibly somehow, the film would fly and have earned four stars from me.
So Winter's Bone doesn't quite make it to four stars, though it is in my top ten for the year so far. I found the ending--not the very ending, which is good, but the denouement--to be a bit too strained and missing some cinematic realism and impact which might have elevated it. But it is one of the best movies of the year so far, and quite worth seeing.
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